Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Unnecessary Tragedy in Missouri: Lessons for Our Society

The headlines in the Seattle Times and many other newspapers this morning describe the terrible loss of life on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri as strong winds from a rapidly moving convective system resulted in the flooding and sinking of a duck boat filled with tourists.

The tragedy of this loss is compounded by the fact that it was totally avoidable:  National Weather Service forecasts and warnings were excellent, and the weather radar showed the developing threat well before the boat even entered the water. 

Unfortunately, this kind of avoidable tragedy is not an isolated incident, highlighting the need to connect the ever increasing abilities of meteorologists with the needs of society to be warned and to avoid severe weather.

The cause of the tragedy was a severe line of thunderstorms, with outflow winds in front of them.  The incident occurred over southwestern Missouri around 7:00 PM central time (5 PM PDT, 0000 UTC) on Thursday. 

Radar imagery clearly showed the approach of the severe convective line and strong evidence of associated powerful winds.  Let me show you using Springfield, Missouri NWS radar imagery.  Remember the accident occurred around 0000 UTC 20 July (meteorologists use a 24-h clock with the time at the Greenwich meridian).

At 2246 UTC (5:46 PM Central Time), a very strong convective line was approaching the area.  Red colors indicate heavy precipitation, perhaps with hail. (this field is called reflectivity, the amount of radar return from the precipitation, which is related to intensity)

At 6:17 PM, before the boat went into the water, the line was heading straight towards the lake, with many intense cells.  Look closely and you will see a faint line ahead of the main action--that is the gust front, the leading edge of strong outflow winds in front of the convection.

Fifteen minutes later, the system was still approaching

 And was stronger and imminent at 6:45 PM.

At 7 PM, the gust front had crossed the lake and the heavy precipitation was on them.

Modern radars are Doppler radars that provide the velocity of the precipitation (and the air it falls through) towards or away from the radar.   The Doppler velocities at the lowest elevation angle  from the horizontal (.5 degree) at 6:31 PM shows very strong winds behind the gust front.  

Blow up radar reflectivity and Doppler velocities at 659 PM show the threat clearly.

The National Weather Service was on top of this, with excellent forecasts and warnings.  Here are some examples:

11:20 a.m. — Severe thunderstorm watch issued for all of southwest Missouri, including Stone and Taney Counties (and the Table Rock Lake area) until 9 p.m. Potential for severe thunderstorms and isolated wind gusts of 70-75 mph.
5:45 p.m. — Severe thunderstorm warning for Newton, Cedar, Polk, Barry, Greene, Jasper and Dade counties. 60 mph wind and 3/4-inch hail possible.
6:32 p.m. — Severe thunderstorm warning for Taney, Stone, Barry counties until 7:30 p.m. Branson and Table Rock Lake are specifically mentioned in this warning. 60 mph winds and hail less than 3/4 inch possible.
6:45 p.m. — Severe thunderstorm warning for Webster, Douglas, Wright, Christian, Stone, Barry, Lawrence, Greene counties until 7:45 p.m. 70 mph winds and 3/4-inch hail possible.
So we had a failure mode with excellent observational data and official warnings of the event, but lack of protective action by the tour operator.   This type of failure mode is not limited to this event.

Another potent example:  the wine country fires of last October.   44 people died and billions lost from a severe weather event (strong Diablo winds) that were well forecast.   Many of the deaths of wildfire fighters of recent years were also from completely predictable weather events.  I could easily give you a dozen more examples of this kind of thing.

Our ability to diagnose and predict the weather has improved immensely during the past decades, but we are not making full use of this information to save lives and property.  Some of the problem is education.  Some of it is poor communications.   But in a world of internet almost everywhere and smartphones in every hand, we should be able to do better.    

Diagnosing and forecasting the weather is only half the battle...the easier part.   Communication and effective use is the hard part.


Flying Bear said...

Much of the responsibility falls on the tour company and the captain. It is not the responsibility of the NWS to try to reach every individual or institution that could benefit from their forecasts. At some point, those to need to know the weather forecast in order to do their job safely need to take the responsibility to read and understand the forecasts being put out by the NWS and others. As a flower farmer, a wedding florist, and an outdoor farmers market manager, I depend on forecasts everyday to help me make decisions in my job. We should all expect others in similar positions to do the same. I have noticed a remarkable ignorance around meteorology by many who's livelihoods depend on the weather. I do not blame the education system for this, as I remember learning about meteorology in my low-budget, public school curriculum. It is, strangely, a lack of curiosity and willingness to learn by the general public. As much as people like to talk about the weather, people don't have a desire to learn about it, and this anti-intellectualism that infects our society contributes to tragedies like today's in Missouri.

The information was out there, and it was their jobs to know and understand the dangers.

ryamkajr said...

This was just pure criminal negligence on the part of the tour operation. I think it is fair to say there will no longer be Ride The Ducks on that Lake, and rightfully so.

17 people. Died for no reason other than the tour operation wanted the revenues.

Eric Blair said...

Having been on a few duck boats in the past, I'd venture to add that they're highly unstable - both as road vehicles and watercraft.

David Cuthbert said...

Although the Seattle Ride the Ducks operation is owned and operated separately, it has its own issues with maintenance. This does not inspire confidence in me.

John K. said...

"a lack of curiosity and willingness to learn by the general public." This is key. It's in the way people live these days. Ignorant about the world around them and completely dependent on the little boxes they carry around everywhere they go to tell them what to do and to do their thinking for them. It's and epidemic of ignorance and lack of common sense grounded by real-world experience. For some (like Cliff) today's access to technology makes them all the smarter. But for the Average Joe, it has had the opposite effect and has made them dumber than ever.

JeffB said...

Much of the media meteorology community has become obsessed with extreme weather as a cudgel for advancing alarmism about climate. And polls show climate alarmism has caused the general public to become oversaturated and disinterested regarding weather and climate. If as Dr. Mass notes, communication is a large part of preventing tragedies due to weather, then the media should take a deep look at their click bait sensationalism tendencies towards weather. I hope this problem will be solved by using smartphone alerting. That would take the emotionally driven media out of the equation.

Ian Reed said...

You gotta wonder if in that area of the country, accustomed to severe weather alerts, and likely, seeing nothing (much like our winter weather advisories and alerts that often don’t come to fruition) if the company figured a “severe thunderstorm” wasn’t anything to be worried about, not understanding that this particular storm, was accompanied by a rather extreme gust front. A feature that doesn’t accompany every storm.

Over there, they often see storms in the evenings, and while lightning is dangerous, I’m sure they feel a duckboat with a roof is a somewhat safe place in lightning? I dunno. But it seems that if they routinely operate during run of the mill storms, this likely is a case of “chicken little”. They called the NWS’s bluff.

I’m not a great weather forecaster myself, but I’m always looking for a way to turn my passion of mundane weather phenomena into a career, surely companies like this could benefit from someone on staff with a somewhat general knowledge of the weather.

Perhaps a local weather liaison that has a database of local tourist companies or businesses that operate outdoors or whatever. The liaison would keep an eye on the weather and issue alerts directly to the managers of these companies keeping them up to date on forecasts. This would allow the company to continue to operate as normal, but still be alerted to breaking weather alerts.

I’m sure there are PLENTY of weather nerds out there who would be willing to do a job like that.

Unknown said...

JeffB, you are conflating weather and climate in your attempt to drag climate change into conversation. The irony here is that you accuse others of climate alarmism yet here you are alarming everyone that climate alarmism contributed to this tragedy. Who again is obsessed?

typingtalker said...

From this morning's Wall Street Journal ...

Passengers and crew aboard an amphibious tour boat that capsized Thursday in Missouri, killing 17, were aware of impending bad weather, according to a survivor of the tragedy who lost nine family members.

Tia Coleman told her local Fox News affiliate, Fox59 of Indianapolis, in an interview from her hospital bed Friday that the crew was told to change the order of its tour, which goes over both land and onto a lake, to go out on the water first to avoid the coming storming.

“There was a warning…the warning people said take them out to the water first, before the storm hits,” she said.

jimijr said...

This is different from what happened on lake George a few years ago. That tour boat capsized when everyone went to one side, as I remember it. Here I saw a pic of the boats steaming into the wind and waves. Perhaps heading downwind might've helped, or cutting back the throttles. Duck boats have been banned in KEYW where I live, too big for city streets and besides the Bubbas have the tour business sewn up. :)

RLL said...

Licensed captains have the obligation and training to consider weather for ALL operations. There likely is criminal behavior here, as well as with the owners of the company.

TW B said...

Having traveled frequently to St. Louis on business I was always surprised at their casual attitude toward weather warnings; even ignoring tornado sirens. When I asked them about this they would say things like "the weather people are wrong all the time" or "there have been lot's of warnings when nothing happened".
There is a deep seated mistrust of professionals in general in the Mid West and this is particularly true for Meteorology/Climate.

John Marshall said...

Don't blame this on the media or conflate it with personal agendas on climate change. The NWS (along with all the private weather operations) present timely information about weather threats, most powerfully by using weather radar.

The duck boat company and the captain involved simply failed to use the available data properly, and as a result they made bad decisions that killed a bunch of people. I believe they should be held accountable and liable for those deaths given the data was clearly available.

Communication requires two parties. One to put the info out there (which can be accessed many ways) and a second party who takes the initiative to read and understand the info before acting on it.

Every smartphone owner can download excellent weather data. They just have to use it.

typingtalker said...

From this morning's Wall Street Journal …

Federal officials probing the fatal sinking of an amphibious tour boat in Missouri said they are focusing on how the operator used information from a private weather service to proceed with an evening cruise last week that encountered near-hurricane-force winds.

Pinocchio said...

I'm still pretty confused on how anyone died. They put life preservers on the boats.

daisycat said...

A lot of the victims would have survived if they had been wearing life jackets. The boat operator told them not to bother. A cheap weather radio would have alerted the operator to the dangerous wind & waves that were quickly heading their way. A cavalier attitude towards safety and extreme negligence are the causes of this tragedy.

John A said...

Good day everyone.

I live in Kansas City after having lived in Seattle for many years. One issue in this part of the country is, people have become so accustomed to these kinds of storms, they probably don't take much notice of them after a while. I've little doubt this same company has sent their boats out into storms many times without incident. So, why should this time have been any different? This time their luck simply ran out. I'm not excusing the boat operator, but I think there's a bit of human nature here to discount the dangers of something you've been through dozens, maybe hundreds, of times.

snapdragon said...

I've ridden the Ducks in Seattle. They were fun. The only thing I would say is that it should be mandatory for all passengers to wear the provided life jackets when the Ducks are afloat. Pretty simple and could have saved some lives in this case.

Foo said...

"Every smartphone owner can download excellent weather data. They just have to use it."

As far as I'm concerned, the discussion begins and ends with this fact. A vast number of weather apps are available with radar images and the ability to select radar modes, including doppler wind velocities.

Not surprisingly, the same people who think "the weather people are always wrong" would rather sit around on their asses and hope for the best than learn anything at all about the science they don't trust.

As for the geniuses in charge of that tour operation: People who can't or won't take 10 seconds to open a weather radar app - and to KNOW what's coming - are either criminally greedy or disgustingly ignorant. Hold them accountable, and make them pay.

Unknown said...

We have great technology today to get the weather and communicate it to others.
The problem is that there seems to be a lack of common sense today. People are not taught critical thinking skills but the schools seem to want to push the "what" to think, not how to think and analyze information!